Should our TV programs be 'quick-acting' or 'long-lasting'?

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Jerry Seinfeld once pondered the drug advertising phrases "quick-acting" and "long-lasting," asking himself, "When do I need to feel better, now or later?" He didn't answer the question, but as an addiction specialist with a habit of my own, I will: Both.

Jerry Garcia had heroin. Richard Pryor had crack. Robert Downey Jr. had-I lost count. As for me, I have "Law & Order." I mainline Det. Lenny Briscoe. I snort "Criminal Intent." I freebase "Special Victim's Unit." With three programs in my "L&O" stash currently on the air, and a fourth, "Trial by Jury," set to launch in the next month, it looks like it'll be easy to snuff my cravings. Network broadcasts-and syndication-let me fix my jones 38 times a week.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to get patients to acknowledge the destructiveness of their compulsions. I insist they take responsibility for bad habits and then break them. But not for me. I am embracing my own addiction and even resolving to step it up in 2005. And the lessons from my habit may be instructive to broadcasters and marketers. Without rival, "Law & Order" is the most addictive brand in the history of TV. It's been my white horse for 14 years. But why? "Law & Order" taps the enduring human desire to deconstruct and reassemble the moral order of the universe.

Like other addictive substances, "Law & Order" transcends demographics. Once thought to have special appeal to women-"the secret vice of power women," as Michael Kinsley called it-"Law & Order" has tiptoed into high-income, younger, blue-state viewership. Kind of like cocaine spreading from the `hood to the `burbs. But today, evidence shows that this vice isn't quite so secret. After its sixth year, a point by which most programs are long gone, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has its highest ratings ever.

a wicked buzz

Is this really "addiction"? In this case, the science is on my side. Scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse tell us that dopamine flow is tied to the region of the brain involved with emotions, the nucleus accumbens. "Reinforcing effects of drugs," they claim, are due to "their ability to surpass the rapid dopamine increases that occur in the nucleus accumbens when triggered by natural reinforcers like food and sex." In other words, natural reinforcers-Briscoe's world-weary wisecracks, Dr. Huang's corny diagnoses, irrepressible Fran Liebowitz swaddled in a judge's robe-also can produce a wicked buzz ... that lasts.

Hollywood thinks it understands "buzz," but it tends to lionize only the quick-acting variety. "Desperate Housewives" is a prime example, but the shrink in me predicts the show will lack addictive staying power. Why? Because it's a novelty drug. It's meant for conspicuous consumption in order to impress and join the cultural herd. If a show is on the cover of Newsweek, then yes, people watch it. But how many are permanently seduced? How many would feed that urge if no one were looking? How many can boast that their nucleus accumbens is bathed in dopamine? Not many. "Desperate Housewives" is having its brief kaleidoscopic moment, like hallucinogens and so many other flashes in the brain pan.

Like other addicts, I take comfort in fellowship. Last Easter, writer Mollie Wilson confessed in the Village Voice that she gave up "Law & Order" for 40 days as a Lenten sacrifice. And she suffered. "Withdrawal is acute," she wrote in a diary entry. And like many of my patients, even sleep brought no respite. "Ice-T appears in my dreams, encouraging me to remain strong." Here, Wilson links "Law & Order" withdrawal to the classic phenomenon of drug dreams, a recurring symptom frequently experienced by those trying to stay clean.

To date, there have been no reported casualties from "Law & Order" binges (though the 24-hour sprees on TNT can cause lightheadedness, blurred vision and a repeating echo of chung-chung in the middle ear well into the next day).

What's more, the typical addict's dilemma of the expense and scarcity of the product doesn't apply. When a heroin junkie's high starts to wear off, there must be another hit, and then another. When the stash is running low, distress, even panic sets in. Junkies lie, cheat and steal to get the money to buy the drugs. Thank goodness, though, programming heads are broadening the traffic in "Law & Order" to ensure a steady blood level. Furthermore, competitive cable rates and discounted DVDs mean I won't have to pawn my jewelry anytime soon.

don't try too hard

What lessons might broadcasters (and advertisers) glean from the study of addiction? One is to remember that drug use is, in the end, a misguided search for equilibrium. While it may manifest itself in fleeting destructive experiments, a temporary high isn't the endgame. What addicts really want is to "feel normal," as patients tell me-normalcy that is anchored in a balanced universe. Programs that convey the merits of balance will ultimately draw back more viewers than those that simply titillate. Shows and drugs that try too hard have a way of burning out fast.

This is why programmers should make certain that a show is always about something, even if it's about nothing. Witness "Seinfeld," "a show about nothing" that first appeared in 1989-and the only show to rival to "Law & Order" in terms of addictive potential. Ultimately, the biggest irony of "Seinfeld" is that those who engage in despicable behavior get laughs in the short-term, but ultimately end up isolated from society, be it for urinating in a parking lot or stealing a marble rye from an old woman. Whereas "Law & Order" actively searches for light, "Seinfeld" celebrates light by showcasing the dark, like an eclipse-but both tackle real moral issues, rather than simply titillating.

Being "spongeworthy" may not be new, but successive generations continue to get sucked in. Same with "Law & Order." According to USA Today, industry savants say total sales of the new "Seinfeld" DVD with the first three seasons may surpass $150 million. All eight seasons could generate over half a billion dollars in revenue, not to mention the billions that have already been made in syndication. The "Law & Order" brand generated about $1 billion for NBC and its cable partners in 2004.

With shows like "Seinfeld" and "Law & Order," people just can't get enough, in part because NBC understood that their proliferation would make them more, not less, addictive. Addictions, as opposed to experiments, take time to build. Hollywood and Madison Avenue don't seem to get this. With networks yanking programs the moment Mr. Nielsen hiccups, it's no wonder there is so little good traffic on the tube.

Sally Satel is staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Drug Treatment Clinic in Washington. She is the co-author of "One Nation Under Therapy," due out from St. Martin's Press in April.

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